They were young, they were punks, and above all else, they were women who had to fight to be themselves. The history of London’s (often overlooked) underground lesbian scene during the politically explosive 1980s is brought to light in Rebel Dykes, a compelling but broad documentary that details both the individual and collective experiences of a group of women in England’s subculture queer scene.
Directed by Sian Williams and Harri Shanahan, the work is structured around a tight-knit group of friends who met at the Greenham Common peace camp in Berkshire during the 80s. Over the course of its 82 minutes, their stories are told through a blend of conversational interviews, rough, punky animations, and filtered archive footage that portray their individual growth and the significant political atmosphere of the time. From discussions of exclusionary feminism, prejudices towards BDSM and the important activism for disarmament and against the implementation of Section 28, Rebel Dykes is a great snapshot of the past told through the eyes of strong queer women.
Shanahan and Williams immerse viewers in the time period through music and distinctive editing, paired with interesting stories around sex positivity, liberating and drug-fuelled night clubs, style and politics. The film’s harsh feminist punk score and visual manipulation of specific archive footage snippets are quintessential 80s taste meets underground culture aesthetics and art style. However, there is a lack of cohesion in these visual styles as animation is added to the mix. Strange cuts and abrupt transitions are distracting at points and take away from the power of the interviews. Alongside these sometimes confusing animations and cinematic choices, Rebel Dykes also struggles to connect the past to the present in its conclusion.
Originally previewed in 2016 at BFI Flare, the documentary has finally been released in full after five years; however, its conclusion feels somewhat dated. Rebel Dykes ends by rounding up the interviewees’ current lives and comparing the political position of women and the queer community now with the described past. Although ending on a positive note, it feels lacklustre, leaving out important political events and movements that have occurred in recent years.
However, despite feeling less relevant in its portrayal of modern events and sentiments, Rebel Dykes stands as an essential historical piece and gives voice to the women that where silenced by scared mainstream views and lifestyles in the past.
Photo: Background image – Jill Posener
Rebel Dykes premiered at the BFI Flare Festival on 17th March 2021 and is available to stream via BFI Player until 28th March 2021.
Read more reviews from our BFI Flare 2021 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the BFI Flare website here.
Watch the trailer for Rebel Dykes here: